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Friday, December 29, 2017

The Road to a Park System for the Future

I drove with my family to Wisconsin and back for Christmas, with a minor detour through Chicago each way. Four days on the road gives you plenty of time to mull things over, and as I passed through the transitions between urban areas and open countryside, kicked in and out of cruise control interacting with the mixture of cars and trucks on the highway, and detoured through Chicago, I found myself thinking a lot about how park systems may look in the future. This may take some explanation, but please come along with me for this ride.

Driving in and out of urban areas is generally just drab. More often than not, buildings become more mundane and spread out, commercial signage grows larger and taller, and then eventually just seems to give up. Most people usually just call it "urban sprawl," even if it's a term without a real definition. But there are a few cities that have great gateways. New York did, once upon a time. Passengers arrived in the harbor by ship, passing alongside the welcoming Statue of Liberty as the skyline took shape as individual skyscrapers continuing to push impossibly higher as you drew nearer. Dramatic as it is to pass through the cut in the Palisades and emerge onto the George Washington Bridge, the city is a mere glimmer in the distance before disappearing into a bewildering tangle of ramps. Likewise, the helix of the Lincoln Tunnel provides impressive glances at the Midtown skyline, but then grinds through a toll plaza and squeezes through the tube before emptying onto congested, nondescript Manhattan intersections.

But Chicago has its moments. We drove along Garfield Boulevard on a side trip going both ways on this trip. Among my strongest memories in life is peering out the window as my cab drove from Midway Airport along the tree lined boulevard on my first trip to Chicago, when I moved to Hyde Park sight unseen to begin college. Exiting the Mad Max world of the Dan Ryan onto Garfield Boulevard invokes a somewhat similar sense of calm and wonder, a definite moment of arrival. Yet while the broad green space and regular spacing of mature trees is still great drama, each time I visit the boulevards on the South Side, the more acutely I feel they have been stripped down to mere scenery. In practice, the boulevards seem to do little to connect any activities between the parks. There is no flowing use of a system of parks, and the roadway design seems to cut off much opportunity. Yet even without the reality of real connective use, the mere vision is compelling and the spacing of greenery contributes to a more legible and enjoyable neighborhood structure. There is much still to be learned and built on from this old Olmsted pattern as our streets continue to evolve.

Out in the countryside, I spotted a few deer and frequently saw hawks in trees along the side of the road. Glimpses of wildlife and considering how the roadways cut off activity in Chicago's boulevard system, I recalled a conversation I had years ago with Joshua Laird when he was the head of planning for New York City's parks. He was interested in the idea of developing migratory corridors through the city, getting parkland to truly work as a natural system intertwined with the human built environment. Although this notion has not been extensively explored within major cities, on this trip it brought to mind the popular images of animal bridges over highways.

Interstate 78 - New Jersey across the Watchung Reservation, photo by Doug Kerr

These thoughts came to mind again as we were arriving home in The Bronx. In 1995, the first coyote in living memory was spotted on the Major Deegan, where it was promptly struck and killed by a car. The return of the coyote is memorialized in Van Cortlandt Park:

Of course, coyotes and other wildlife living in the city comes with challenges, and my family recently attended a Parks Department informational session at our local recreation center about urban coyotes. Among the challenges is their interaction with pets, which themselves have placed a growing demand on city parkland.

I have had a long, simmering interest in planning for pets. As loved members of our households, their needs should be considered while planning our cities. This can take many forms, including sanitation and exercise. In growing cities with competing demands for limited space, the need for systematic and thoughtful planning will be important.

This brings me to the final thought that kept coming up as I jockeyed with drivers seeming traveling at random speeds and awkward spacing along the highway: the opportunity to create additional parkland from surplus roadway space. As the automation of vehicles becomes more of an eventuality, planners need to be leading proactive discussions about how we will transform our roadways. There is a risk that without leadership, more efficient commutes that free passengers from the task of driving will simply result in longer commutes with an increase of traffic on the roads in single occupant autos. On the other hand, developing a compelling vision of walkable communities with a new green space interwoven throughout could result in different outcomes, and could provide the space necessary to meet the increasing demands placed on parkland.

The new public plaza in front of the Flatiron Building was created from excess roadway

The original concept sketch I prepared
Using the increased efficiency to recapture roadway space could truly transform the urban landscape. Many parks could be significantly expanded with portions of adjoining road beds. Rather than discrete sidewalk pits struggling to provide a viable habitat for scraggly trees and bike lanes exposed to unpredictable cars, many streets could be reshaped as a more livable habitat providing space for different modes, adequate storm water management, and leisurely breaks for a growing retired population. The old promise of the boulevards might actually become a reality on a broader scale, with additional opportunities to design gateways that welcome people into the city.

But if it may sound simple, it won't be. The details become daunting rather quickly. Who would be responsible for maintaining the new greenery? Would adjoining property owners take on the extra work? Could municipalities handle expanded obligations? How do you avoid the equity problems likely to emerge as automated cars seek low-cost real estate to meet their storage needs? Can enough space be recaptured on each street to create meaningful space, or would the leftovers be too small to maintain effectively? How would the new public space be programmed, and how much resistance would some neighborhoods raise to the very notion of strangers loitering in front of their homes? What specific conditions would contribute to better habitat for urban wildlife? And if we use a network design or other considerations to add space on select streets, how are those selected in a way that is equitable and politically feasible?

Yet as difficult as these questions become, this is precisely the work we need to advance to deliver livable cities to the generations who follow. Perhaps when my son, who was bored in the back seat of the car on our trip, is old enough to take a long trip with his own children, they will be traveling along streets and highways that are more integrated with the natural and social environment, and provide a more inspiring view out the window.

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